Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Classics - Master of Kung Fu #15

Since new comics don't arrive this week until Thursday, here's a bonus "Classic Comics" review to tide you over.

I cheated a bit on the title at the top of this column - the correct heading should read: Special Marvel Edition featuring The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu #15. It was just a bit much to put in the title line.

And don't be fooled by the number - this is the first appearance of Shang-Chi, and in short order he took over this title completely (his name, by the way, means "the rising and advancing of a spirit").

With a cover date of December 1973, this comic is a work of genius on many levels. It not only tapped into the Kung Fu craze (running wild at the time in movies and on TV), it also brought back Sax Rohmer's evil mastermind Fu Manchu and created a brand new hero for the Marvel Universe.

In short order, this comic would spin off new heroes (most notably Iron Fist and White Tiger), magazines and special annuals and giant-size issues - and it all started here.

The groundwork was laid by Marvel's top creators of the 1970s - writer Steve Englehart and artists Jim Starlin and Al Milgrom. The story starts at top speed and never slows down. We begin with Shang-Chi facing several deadly assassins, and quickly dispatching them with amazing martial arts skill.

Through flashbacks, we learn that he is the son of Fu Manchu, trained from childhood to be the ultimate living weapon and a master of the martial arts - but Shang-Chi also has a sharp mind, and he soon discovers his father's true plans and sets out to stop him.

The issue is a great balance between awesome fight sequences and the examination of the true purpose of martial arts - mastering the body and the mind.

Starlin was (and is) a master storyteller and made the fights look brutal and realistic. Englehart's scripts were a perfect match, as he set up the backstory of Fu Manchu and Shang-Chi's rebellion.

When this issue came out the TV show Kung Fu was all the rage (and one of my favorites), and it was a delight to see a comic book with a similar attitude and style of storytelling - although it was soon obvious that there was a big difference between Shang-Chi and David Carradine's Caine (in fact, the two "met" - sort of - in a later issue).

The series ran the gamut from incredible (including Paul Gulacy and Mike Zeck's ground-breaking work) to pitiful (they know who they are), but when it was good, it was the best.

And this issue is the high mark that the others had to live up to.

Grade: A+

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